17 February 2012

The rise and fall of national capital

The threat of a new nationalism (1)
In a previous post, I worried that left populists would prosecute a war against all of neoliberalism’s hegemonic social forms, neglecting the progressive side of neoliberalism and sabotaging the chance for real progress. This may have struck some readers as counterintuitive: those of us pursuing a vision of human equality, solidarity, and true freedom are not used to thinking about neoliberalism as progressive in any way. The rapacity of economic elites freed from all constraints; skyrocketing inequality reshaping work, politics, and culture so that increasingly we are all reconstituted as servants or dependents of the rich; whole populations rendered unsuitable for participation in mainstream life by the economic disintegration of their social ecology; accelerating environmental degradation; intensifying exploitation – these are our associations with neoliberalism.

But neoliberalism is (or was) a social totality: all the dominant forms of the last thirty years were components of neoliberalism as a coherent system. That includes progressive (but not unproblematic) impulses like gender equality, multiculturalism, and skepticism of authority. Because the crisis of neoliberalism has manifested itself primarily in the economic realm, and these forms of consciousness have no clear connection to the economy, they are for the moment secure (what comes after neoliberalism will, however, reshape them – for better or worse). Under much greater immediate threat is one other progressive side of neoliberalism: the erosion of the nation form.

Modern nationalism emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century, a distinctly modern form of consciousness that rooted the abstract individual within the constructed (and curiously abstracted) particularity of national identity. The process of reducing the extraordinary diversity of identity within the borders of the posited nation – at the time, most people’s identity was far more parochial, centered on kinship and locality – was long and bloody. During the nineteenth century it was constantly confounded by forces that seemed to stand in tension with it, above all the expansion of capital and of formal imperialism. In the twentieth century the nation form came into its own (proceeding through far more bloodshed), and finally became a universal condition with the consolidation of Fordism following World War II.

Following the liberal period’s spectacular self-immolation through Depression and World War, forms of dissent that had grown within liberalism emerged as the new common sense to structure recovery. Against the ostentatious inequalities of the prewar era, Fordism pursued an egalitarianism of standardized productive subjects. Against the rapacious imperialism that was liberalism’s highest expression, Fordism posited national self-reliance. Against the fragmentation of the competitive market, Fordism erected unified forms of administration centralized within the national market. The fires of war catalyzed these elements into the Fordist-Keynesian and Fordist-Stalinist syntheses, and accumulation proceeded by integrating larger and larger numbers of the previously excluded (both workers and underclass) into a distinctly national realm of politics, culture, and economy.

This phenomenon raised national boundaries higher than ever before and choked off the material connections of capital flows, labor movements, global trade, and imperial administration that had knit the globe together over the previous 150 years. Yet a unitary global order persisted in the realm of consciousness, giving rise to the parallel national structures of a bureaucratic economy and homogenizing mass culture that grew up around the world, spanning the seemingly impermeable boundaries of “Communism”/“capitalism”, aligned/non-aligned, ex-colony/ex-metropole. The great secret of modern nationalism has always been that its form is the same everywhere, no matter what content it is filled with. It is the logic of the commercial brand raised above the mundane realm of retail: desperate to assert a difference that doesn’t really exist.

The characteristic national projects of the postwar world emerged from this system, including the widespread pursuit of import substitution industrialization; the mercantilism of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea; the so-called Communist project of nationalizing the economy and reconstituting the nation as a workhouse; the aggressive pursuit of homogeneous national identities within the former colonized world as well as the general impulse to purify the nation (e.g., in the US, McCarthyism); and the logic of the Cold War itself.

Despite the horrific violence, exploitation, and repression involved in these projects, there was also a certain progressive tendency in the nation form at this time. People who had been excluded and suppressed were now held up as the embodiment of national virtue, and their material standard of living improved dramatically. The persistence of poverty was considered unconscionable and the celebration of inequality fell out of fashion. Communal, racial, and ethnic prejudice was on the defensive before the demand for national integration. It became possible to imagine a universal project (universal, that is, within the bounds of the nation) of material equality for all.

The secret of this progressive side of the nation form was that, though it claimed to place human needs and dignity over economic calculation, it was ultimately subordinate to the needs of capital accumulation within the nation. On the one hand, national capital made possible – you could even say, made necessary – the dramatic increase in equality of the Fordist period. But it also dictated that this would be equality of a particular kind, a homogenizing and standardizing equality that imposed new restrictions on the individuals it claimed to liberate, even as it created new kinds of inequality and exclusion that structured the social conflicts of the later 1950s and early 1960s.

Those who sought to realize the promise of equality – the American civil rights movement, the Nehruvians, the anti-authoritarian current in China, and many others – accomplished much because their efforts were in line with the general movement of national capital. But ultimately they found themselves running up against the structural limitations of the Fordist system. Because they understood their task as an ethical imperative and believed that their enemies were merely motivated by power or prejudice, they could not recognize the real limits they had reached. Their efforts had initially been motivated by the ethics and aesthetics that Fordism enabled. Now, in their frustration they began to turn against Fordism itself, and they became one component of the global crisis of Fordism that began in the late 1960s. All of Fordism’s hegemonic social forms came under attack, including the rigid national boundaries it had constituted, and the new ideas that became the basis for neoliberalism began to emerge.


  1. It is worth pointing out that capital's movement is always one of progression and regression. Each period of accumulation not only crystallizes forms indicating capital's victory, but those forms are a kind of index of the resistances that capital had to overcome and the concessions made in doing so.

    I think it is necessary to point out that we should not simply look at the last 40 years as a period of defeat and demobilization. The dismantling of the forms that crystallized in the wake of the revolutions and counter-revolutions from 1917-1945 is not something to fixate upon in a fit nostalgic melancholia. After all, that dismantling was in part a response to the power of the struggles that arose, which Walker mentions, struggles which most definitely extended the association of humanity with citizenship in ways that entailed a general improvement in many parts of the world with the quality of life of billions of people.

    I believe Walker correctly notes the limits of this universality as the limits of the nation state's capacity to achieve this universal improvement. Capital, however, even in that period, is and was a global social relation and national improvements were predicated on global accumulation. The long period of devalorization/crisis of accumulation which began the in early 1970's formed a barrier, a mounting pressure, to the continuation of concessions to the population by the state.

    What happened however was not, as I take Walker's piece, a weakening of the state and of nationalism. The process was by no means so uniform nor was it in any way anti-state or anti-nationalist. What happened was a piecemeal dismantling of those aspects of the state which shielded individuals and households from the market and those public institutions which represented a counter-weight to private power, the power of wealth and of privileged groups.

    Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism alike strengthened the state in ways that weakened the public sphere and strengthened the private sphere, while also distorting both. The elements of the state which had acceded to political pressure from the mass social movements and which had formed to accommodate their demands were subject to weakened enforcement (environmental, industrial, safety, and health standards and laws), funding cuts (welfare, public healthcare, unemployment insurance, education, etc.), weakened objectives (all of the above), and in many cases to overall elimination of state programs and their replacement by privatized, monetized services (child care, medical care, elder care, pensions, etc.)

    In turn, the state was radically strengthened in its policing authorities and its ability to act against individuals and groups. The legal standing of supra-individual entities like corporations has been dramatically extended. The shift was not the weakening of the state and nationalism, but a weakening of the aspects of the state which had supported the public sphere, and the systematic strengthening of the elements of the state which supported the private, but where the private was increasingly construed strictly as the realm of the market and monetized individuals and households, while the public sphere was increasingly construed as the space of functionaries and the state itself, not of citizens and of matters of general welfare.

    The reformation of what counted as public and private, the deformation of both in favor of the command of the market has taken any forms. If the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, the anti-colonial struggles, and the workers' movement frequently took limited, communitarian forms (identitarian organizations; nationalist anti-colonial movements; trade, craft and industry specific unions), they nonetheless contained a universalist impulse as well, that was less about achieving advantage for a community, than eliminating privileges and improving the conditions of possibility for all peoples.

  2. In light of this, multiculturalism, Third-Wave feminism, etc. in general moved to identify specific groups, establish the boundaries of their existence, secure for them specific legal recognition and privileges, and patrol th boundaries of these identities. This tendency had been present in the prior period and in the wake of the end of the movements of the 60's and 70's, those tendencies were encouraged and developed.

    One peculiar example of this was the kind of pro-state feminism of the likes of Katherine McKinnon, whose struggles against pornography as oppressive actually sought to strengthen the state. In many respects, the complaint from Right Populists of a Nanny State is completely valid. The state has been given extended powers over individual behavior rather than these being challenged politically, in public, they are rather legislated by the state and thus de-politicized.

    Another example was the rise of Black nationalism tied to the Democratic Party and local urban political machines which established the rule that “only Black people can represent Black people” and thus majority population should entail majority representation as if a unitary “Black community” existed, to which “Black politicians and Black business” had priority of access and sole representation. This entailed a parodic reproduction of the white political machines and structures that dominated prior to the mid-1970's in these cities, but 1) under the conditions of claiming an entitlement based on prior victimization, and 2) the collapse of the cities as the centers of population and wealth production. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

    The unions actually failed to defend certain national policies that would have potentially reduced their power, but which would have universalized healthcare and retirement. Instead by drawing pensions and healthcare into themselves, as parts of contracts and thus of union power, they also made privatization much easier in the U.S. As opposed to Europe because good healthcare and retirement plans were seen as (and often treated by the unions and union memberships as) communitarian privilege rather universal right. In the same way, union enforcement of seniority in many places was attacked by women and non-whites in the 1960's because it objectively reinforced race and gender privilege. In line with these, it is not surprising that unions increasingly accepted the tying of workers to the profitability of the company by accepting payments in the form of bonuses and stock sharing plans.

  3. What I think is actually potentially liberating in the last 40 years is thus not the weakening of the state, which has actually been the dramatic weakening and perversion of the public sphere and the strengthening of the state in terms of enforcing the private sphere construed as the market, but the weakening of the bond between work and identity. The weakening bond between the labor performed and the person performing the labor opens up a deeper potential disconnect between the right to a life and any specific form of productive activity.

    The vastly increased material productive capacity and the ability to reduce the quantity of necessary labor-time for each individual is also positive. We have the capacity to reduce the work time of each individual to a fraction of its current quantity. In fact, if you look at the amount of labor time dedicated to activity strictly designed to convince us to consume, to circulate commodities, to facilitate excess consumption, and then take into account the amount spent on destructive production, this points to the possibility of a dramatically reduced work week.

    Along the same lines, we certainly have the technological capacity to dramatically reduce the amount of labor to produce energy, housing, food, etc. This capacity, driven by capital's drive to rationalize over the last 40 years but so far run up against the limit of capital's ability to make it sufficiently profitable to leave its current technology and labor processes, also brings with it the possibility of producing less wastefully and with less destructive technology, on a scale that can be managed with a great deal of local autonomy.

    We may also be running up against the limits of the form of spatial domination that became predominant in after WWII. While this threatens environmental tragedy on an irreversible level, it also means that addressing the environmental issues immediately places the problem of capitalism up front. The reactionaries, unlike the liberals, are quite right to say that you cannot take the kind of radical measures required without calling into question capital tout court. This is not “merely” a matter of the ozone layer or global warming, but the damage done to water supplies, land quality, tidal management, and the rest, which can only be addressed by a dramatic transformation of the utilization of space which increases population density in hitherto unexplored ways. It may be that the time for eccentric planners like Jacque Fresco and The Venus Project (http://www.thevenusproject.com/) has come.

    I believe that other, as yet imperceptible, possibilities will present themselves to which we must be sensitive. They will not be clear to us now, but I believe it is possible that forms of struggle will develop which we have not foreseen. It may be that only in the face of more dire consequences will adequate pressure press these possibilities into distinct shapes.